From the critically acclaimed author of Lies We Tell Ourselves comes an emotional, empowering story of what happens when love may not be enough to conquer all
Toni and Gretchen are the couple everyone envied in high school. They’ve been together forever. They never fight. They’re deeply, hopelessly in love. When they separate for their first year at college—Toni to Harvard and Gretchen to NYU—they’re sure they’ll be fine. Where other long-distance relationships have fallen apart, theirs is bound to stay rock-solid.
The reality of being apart, though, is very different than they expected. Toni, who identifies as genderqueer, meets a group of transgender upperclassmen and immediately finds a sense of belonging that has always been missing, but Gretchen struggles to remember who she is outside their relationship.
While Toni worries that Gretchen won’t understand Toni’s new world, Gretchen begins to wonder where she fits in this puzzle. As distance and Toni’s shifting gender identity begin to wear on their relationship, the couple must decide—have they grown apart for good, or is love enough to keep them together?
About the Author
Robin Talley studied literature and communications at American University. She lives in Washington, DC, with her wife, but visits both Boston and New York regularly despite her moral opposition to Massachusetts winters and Times Square. Her first book was 2014's Lies We Tell Ourselves. Visit her online at robintalley.com or on Twitter at @robin_talley.
Read an Excerpt
SUMMER BEFORE FRESHMAN YEAR OF COLLEGE 1 YEAR, 10 MONTHS TOGETHER
I still melt every time I kiss Gretchen, but it's different now.
That first night, back at a high school dance, we barely even knew each other's name. Now we're about to leave for college, and we know each other inside and out.
Before I met Gretchen, I wondered if I'd ever even have a real girlfriend. It seemed impossible, once. I'd gone out with other girls, sure, but nothing had ever lasted. I didn't think I'd actually find anyone willing to put up with me for more than a month or two.
But I still daydreamed. I'd sit there in health class, my eyes soft-focused on the whiteboard while I pictured some pretty girl and me skipping hand in hand through daisy-strewn meadows, gazing into each other's eyes, laughing at our little inside jokes and never, ever getting tired of each other. I used to think no real relationship could be as exciting as my health-class fantasy.
What blew me away was that the reality turned out to be so much more. I never imagined that being one half of a whole could make you feel more whole all by yourself. I never dreamed I'd want to tell someone all my secrets and know their secrets, too.
But now everything's changing. I don't know what our lives are going to be like after tomorrow, but at least I know that no matter what happens next, we'll always have each other.
Knowing I can count on that is the only thing holding me in one piece while I count down our last few hours together. I'm trying to act like it's not a big deal, but as the minutes tick by it's getting harder and harder to pretend.
"Pass me the shampoo?" Gretchen asks. I find the Target bag with four bottles of Sun-Kissed Shiny Grapefruit and hand it over.
"You know, they do have stores in Boston," I say as Gretchen loads the bag into a suitcase. I'm sitting in Gretchen's desk chair, one of the only surfaces in the room that's not covered in open boxes, suitcases and laundry baskets. "You don't have to turn your dorm room into your own personal CVS."
"You are so funny, T." Gretchen kisses me on the cheek and grabs a stack of socks from the dresser. "You must teach me your ways. How much shampoo are you going to pack?"
"I already packed, but I'm not bringing any shampoo. I'll get some when I'm up there. How are you going to take all these suitcases on the plane anyway? Are your parents going to pretend your bags are theirs or something?"
Gretchen laughs. "Do you think I should bring all my shoes or just some of them? I can probably leave my cowboy boots here, right? They'll take up so much space."
I eye Gretchen's closet door, still covered in photos from two years' worth of debate tournaments. "You only own, like, two pairs of shoes. I think you should bring them all unless you want to go around barefoot."
Gretchen sighs fake-dramatically. "I own more than two pairs of shoes."
"Well, yeah, I guess there's three if you count your sneakers and your Birkenstocks."
Gretchen laughs again, even though it's the oldest joke there is. For the last two years of high school Gretchen wore Birks every day unless it was raining or snowing. On those days, the sneakers came out. Gretchen always looked totally out of place in hallways filled with girls in designer ballet flats or chic dress code-friendly one-inch heels.
Not that any of it ever stopped Gretchen from becoming absurdly popular. That part was pretty much guaranteed from the first fateful Homecoming dance on. When you make that much of a stir before it's even your first day of school, you're going to amass a sizeable crew of devotees.
Which I guess meant I wound up being kind of popular, too. Walking down the hall holding hands with Gretchen every day was enough to make anyone feel like a celebrity. Winning that fight with the school administration junior year didn't hurt, either. The blue plaid pants I finally got to wear looked ridiculous, like old-man golf pants, but it was such a relief to be out of those stupid skirts I'd been wearing since kindergarten.
Every time I walked down the hall wearing my old-man golf pants with my gorgeous girlfriend by my sideevery single day felt like that night at the dance. Ever since Gretchen came here, it felt like I could finally bewellme.
Now it's all over. High school. Everything about the life I've had here. The bad parts and the good.
I watch Gretchen pack, dressed in an old pair of cutoff shorts and a tank top, blond hair hanging loose and messy, perpetual smile firmly in place.
Gretchen is definitely one of the good parts. Gretchen's the good part.
I can't keep pretending.
"I'm going to miss you." I don't mean to say it. The truth just sort of spills out of me. "So much."
Gretchen turns around, face falling. Right away I feel bad. I hate making Gretchen look like that.
It's been happening more and more lately. All summer we've been making plans, looking up our roommates online and studying the Boston T map and talking about what it's going to be like to be on our own, but over the past week or so, Gretchen's gotten a lot quieter. I think it's only just started hitting home for both of us how big a change this is going to be.
"I mean," I go on, trying to act nonchalant, "I know we aren't going to be that far apart in the geographical sense, but it just feels like I need to see you every day, you know? This is going to be so hard. I actually kind of can't deal when I think about how hard it's going to be."
"I know." Gretchen puts down the socks and draws me into a hug. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't be sorry." I squeeze tighter. I love the way Gretchen feels in my arms.
I can't wait any longer.
"Hey," I say, still trying to make my voice sound breezy. "You know how I snuck off at Target while you were in the toothpaste aisle?"
"Yeah." Gretchen pulls back. "I figured you were buying something embarrassing. I saw you checking out that box set of Pretty Little Liars."
"Well, yeah. You know I always had that thing for Emily. That wasn't why I snuck off, though."
"So why did you?"
Gretchen's leaning against the hand-me-down dresser, the sad expression from before replaced by the smile we both get whenever we play this game. The I-have-a-secret-and-I-can't-wait-to-tell-you game.
"Close your eyes," I order.
"Now promise not to laugh," I say.
"T! You know I can't promise that. I always laugh, even when it's not funny. I'm already laughing now just standing here!"
"Okay, but you have to promise not to laugh with malicious intent."
"I swear I won't laugh with malicious intent! Can I please open my eyes?"
I stand up and pull the tiny bag out of my pocket. "Okay."
Eyes open, Gretchen looks inside the bag, then claps and laughs. "This is perfect! You really got this while I was picking out my Aquafresh?"
"Yep." I grin and pull out another bag. When Gretchen gets happy like this, especially when it's because of something I did, I always turn into a giant, embarrassing, grinning goof. "I got one for me, too."
"Aww. You are such a sap! I love it!" Gretchen hugs me again. "That was such a fantastic night, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember."
The Target has a kiosk where you can get jewelry engraved. I got us each a silver disk on a leather cord. Gretchen's disk has a top hat in the center. Mine has a bare footprint.
When we leave tomorrow, Gretchen and I will be apart for the first time. We'll be in the same city, but at different schoolsGretchen at Boston University, me at Harvard. We'll only be able to see each other on weekends. Maybe the occasional weekday if we're up for trekking across the city.
I wanted us to have something solid we could look at. Something to hold in our hands when we couldn't hold each other. Something to remind us both of where we started out. Not that there's any way we could forget.
"This is so insanely sweet," Gretchen says. "I should've gotten you a present, too."
"No, you shouldn't. Don't be crazy. It only occurred to me when I saw the kiosk."
"Toni. Tell the truth."
"Okay, I've been thinking about it for months." We both laugh. "If you want, you can always pay my mom back for the twelve ninety-five I put on the credit card."
"Your mom can afford it." We laugh again, and Gretchen's arms link behind my neck. I'm still freaked about tomorrow, but touching Gretchen helps. Touching Gretchen always helps.
"Thank you," Gretchen says. "Really."
"You're welcome, really."
Have you ever wanted to breathe someone in until they become part of you and never let them go? That's what kissing Gretchen is like.
Maybe that's how it is for everyone when they kiss someone they really love. I don't know.
We break away and Gretchen goes over to the closet, where most of the clothes are still hanging.
"Hey, so, there was something I wanted to talk to you about," Gretchen says, grabbing a bunch of pants still on their hangers and tossing them into an open suitcase. I wince at the thought of the wrinkles. "It's kind of, um, a thing."
"What's up?" I sit on the edge of the bed to watch Gretchen pack.
"Well, it's just that"
Gretchen's phone buzzes. That's the third time in the past five minutes.
"Who keeps texting you?" I ask.
"Uh." Gretchen glances down at the screen. "Well. If I tell you something, will you promise not to get mad?" I laugh. "You know that's never a good way to start, babe."
Gretchen puts on a mock-innocent expression I've seen many times before. There's no way not to smile at it.
"It's possible" Gretchen says, "that I told Chris and Audrey they could come over and help us pack tonight."
"Why?" I can hear the whine in my voice. It's our last night together.
"They were asking when they could say goodbye," Gretchen tells me. "This was the last chance. I said they can't stay long. Chris tried to make a stink about it, but I told him he'd just have to deal."
I roll my eyes, but I can't really complain. Chris is my best friend, and Audrey is my little sister. I'll see Gretchen every week once we leave for school, but I'm not going to see Chris or Audrey until Thanksgiving. If I come home for Thanksgiving.
"It'll be fun," Gretchen says. "We can hang out on our own after. Don't worry."
I cross the room, loop my arms around Gretchen's waist and kiss the back of Gretchen's neck, provoking a round of giggles.
"I never worry about anything when you're around," I say. "How long until they get here?"
"Half an hour, maybe?"
We both smile. Then we start making out.
It'll be a while before we get another chance, after all. At least a week. The last time I went a week without seeing Gretchen was when my family went to a resort in the Dominican Republic. I was so lonely. Plus I kept feeling guilty about the exploited workers who handed me fresh towels every morning. For the first two days I texted Gretchen every other minute. Then my sister told me to put the phone down already because I was embarrassingly whipped.
I guess we lose track of time, because we're still kissing when the front door slams.
"Crap." Gretchen scampers off the bed. I go over to the mirror to check my hair. It's all mussed. I try to smooth it back, but it's a lost cause.
Gretchen's mom opens the bedroom door without knocking, coming in with a bright smile and a long glance around the room. The rule in Gretchen's house, which we tend to break a lot, is that we can hang out as much as we want but we're supposed to leave the door open. Gretchen's parents are keeping up the pretense that all we do is hold hands. It's kind of cute, actually. My parents prefer to believe Gretchen and I don't even do that much.
"How's the packing going, girls?" Gretchen's mom asks. I bristle at the "girls" thing, but I try not to let them see.
"It's going great!" Gretchen smiles.
My annoyance slides away. Gretchen's smile beams out so much happiness, so much warmth, that sometimes I can barely stand it. I gaze at Gretchen's bright, open face and wonder for the trillionth time how I ever got this lucky.
Gretchen's mom steps aside, and Audrey and Chris poke their heads into the room. Chris is grinning big, but my sister looks pouty. Audrey just turned sixteen and doesn't have a driver's license yet, so Chris must've stopped by our house to play chauffeur.
"Him!" Gretchen sweeps forward and grabs them both into a three-way hug. I'm not a hugger, so I stay where I am.
I'm going to miss them, though. My friends. My sister.
Even Gretchen's parents, who have always been really nice to me.
It's not that I won't ever see any of them again. They'll be around when I come back for breaks. Except that coming home for breaks also means seeing my mother again.
My mother, who still calls me Antonia, no matter how many times I say I hate that stupid girlie name.
My mother, who hasn't allowed me to get a yearbook photo taken since I turned twelve and finally cut my hair supershort, the way I'd always wanted to.
My mother, who'd pretended the whole threatening-to-sue-the-school thing wasn't happening junior year, except to walk around the house muttering about how no daughter of hers should want to go to school looking like a freak show.
Maybe I should find some excuse to stay on campus for every break over the next four years. After all, it's not like I need to come back to Maryland to see Gretchen.
Audrey, though I'd hate to leave my sister in that house alone for good.
"Hey, T." Chris fist-bumps me. Chris has gotten really muscly over the past couple of soccer and basketball seasons. Whenever we fist-bump now, I'm afraid this is going to be the time Chris forgets to exercise self-restraint and I wind up with a dislocated shoulder. "You ready? Starting tomorrow we're mortal enemies."
"I'm so ready," I say. "When's the game?"
"Right before Thanksgiving. Remember, we have to hate each other on game day. It's the rules."
"Are you guys seriously going to the Harvard-Yale football game?" Audrey asks. "That's got to be the nerdiest event of all time."
"Actually I think it's less about nerdiness and more about drinking cheap alcohol in a field with your buddies," Chris says.
"Gross," Audrey says.
"Oh, because you've never done that," Gretchen says. Audrey laughs.
"How are you holding out after yesterday?" I ask Chris.
"Oh, I'm great. We got back together this morning, actually." Chris grins big. I sigh.
Last night I got an epic series of texts about Chris's latest breakup with Steven. They were on and off for pretty much our whole senior year. They kept saying they were going to break up for good before the end of the summerthey still believe that old wives' tale about how you shouldn't start college in a long-distance relationshipbut they could never stay apart for long.
Chris says it's because their love is pure and true. I say it's because they're hormonal teenagers who don't know how to keep it in their pants. Not that I'm one to talk.
My friends are always fighting with their boyfriends or girlfriends about the littlest things. My friend Renee, who was my date for Homecoming junior year, realized she was bi and got together with this girl named Liz soon after the dance. Then they spent the entire year fighting about what movie to see that weekend, or whose music to plug into the car stereo, or which of the guys on the lacrosse team was the most obnoxious. Then they broke up. Now Renee's going out with the lacrosse guy they rated third on their list.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am writing this review in June upon having just finished this book, and it will be October when this review goes live. I am writing this review right now because I finished the book and wrote a mini review of it, and as soon as I wrote that mini review, I needed to write this review because I had thoughts to expand upon. I could just say, Everyone should read this book, and leave it at that, but I have much more to say, because this book is extremely unique, and all the things that make it unique also make it wonderful. As soon as I received my ARC, I started this book, and I didn't read any more of some other books that I had started until I finished this. I became so invested in these characters and in their lives. I am probably going to preorder this book, and if I don't preorder it, I will buy it when it releases, because I want to read it again when it is a hardcover with that gorgeous cover that will look beautiful in my book collection. Anyway, now onto the reasons that this book is perfection. This book is full of diversity all around. Obviously, the main diversity that you know is in this book just by reading the synopsis is the sexual orientation and gender nonbinary diversity. There is also racial diversity in this, with African American and Korean characters in important roles. The narrators of this book are Gretchen, who is lesbian, and Toni, who is genderqueer. While I have read a couple books with characters who identified as trans, I have never read a book with a character who identified as genderqueer. That is, until I read this book. Honestly, there are some gender identities mentioned in this book that I had never even heard of before. Most of the characters in this book fall somewhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum, except for a few minor characters. There are gay secondary characters, a lesbian protagonist, a genderqueer protagonist, lesbian secondary characters, a bi secondary character, and transgender secondary characters. This book does have a lot of focus on transgender characters, which is one of the most underrepresented categories in LGBTQIA. This book focused a lot on pronouns and the gender binary, and many of the nuances there, which were interesting to read about, since it wasn't something I've thought about very much. Another way that this book is unique is that it shows a relationship that is already established at the beginning of the book. So many books are about the buildup to getting the main couple together, so it was refreshing to read something different, though I do like those other books as well. Books and movies often stop once the couple is together, but this book shows how there is so much to be explored and written about the difficulties of an established relationship. Once someone is with someone else, it doesn't automatically mean that the couple will have smooth sailing from there on out. Instead, there can be bumps in the road, and the people in the relationship will need to learn how they can grow both in the relationship as well as individually, which is the main struggle within this book. Once they go to college, Toni and Gretchen have a distance between them, since they aren't seeing each other nearly as often. This is especially difficult for Gretchen because she isn't sure how she fits in outside of her relationship with Toni. The third thing that is especially unique about this book is that it is a YA book set during college. Most YA books are set during hi
Diversity in books. This is something I never really thought about until I became a book blogger. I just read whatever looked pretty. Then I read my first LBGQTIA not very long ago. However, it didn't really click with me that it was my first. I have never tried to not read books that are classified as LBGQTIA in genre, I just some how have never really read them. It was all purely accidental. Thankfully, I was able to participate in this blog tour hosted by The Irish Banana for What We Left Behind by Robin Talley. I am going to be perfectly honest here. I had no idea what this book was about when I signed up for the tour. I signed up because the cover is pretty (just look at it!). I am glad that this cover pulled me in. I am glad that I got to read this book. It has helped to broaden my reading horizons and for that I am extremely thankful. What We Left Behind is a book about love, friendship, and most importantly self discovery. Our main characters are Toni and Gretchen. They are two humans in love ready to go off to college. They are supposed to be going to different colleges but in the same city, Boston. However, the day before they are both supposed to leave Gretchen drops a big bomb on Toni. Gretchen tells Toni that she will not be following "their" plan and that she will actually be going to NYU instead. They decide to not break up and deal with a long distance relationship. They have been together for 2 years and they love each other more than anything. Now they have to discover who they are as individuals and not as a couple. This next bit may be a bit spoilerish - but I really need to express my thoughts on this - so just warning you. It really probably isn't, but just in case. This book has made me think a lot and it has taught me a lot. Before reading this one, I never once really gave a though to the use of gender pronouns. I knew that I would always use whatever gender pronoun someone asked me to use for them, out of respect, but I never thought much further beyond that. I never thought or realized how hard it can be for someone to decide what gender pronoun is the best for them to use for themselves. This goes the same for what sexuality category you fall under. I never gave much thought on how hard it can be for someone to come up. I just never realized. And that is just it, until I read this book - I JUST NEVER REALIZED. So thank you, Robin Talley, for writing about it. By the way, I don't think a reader can avoid thinking and contemplating these very thoughts when they read this book. These two parts are very much a large part of this story. Ok - the spoilerish part is over. I could get into the characters and my thoughts on them, but that would give away some key parts of the story. I will say this though. I liked one of the main characters more than the other. I also liked quite a few of the side characters - especially the ones that would speak their minds and tell the main characters whats what - because I couldn't yell at them or tell them myself. Find the rest of my review here: www.readingwithcupcakes.blogspot.com